Each year, during the month of April, a magnificent transformation overtakes the city of San Antonio. The city—the entire city—becomes swept up in a fever of live music, energetic dancing, delicious food and billions of pieces of brightly colored confetti.
For 11 straight days, from April 19-29, San Antonio will be covered in the hazy, frenetic cloud of the joyous Fiesta San Antonio. The event is a treasured part of the city’s heritage, and its traditions have been passed down by families for generations.
Cascarones—hollowed-out and brightly colored eggs filled with the aforementioned colored confetti—are cracked over the heads of unsuspecting revelers by the thousands; pounds of ceremonial medals are collected and worn; and countless hours of work are lost due to the event, which attracts millions of attendees and generates hundreds of millions in revenue for the city.
Parades, performances, food and drink tastings, sporting events, even coronations of its own “royalty”—Fiesta San Antonio has it all!
For the millions who have visited over the years, this is not news to you: Fiesta is flat-out amazing. However, for the millions more who have not been or—GASP—have never even heard of it, you might be asking, “What is Fiesta?” Well, like most great events in history, it started with a revolution.
A Festive History
In 1891, city leaders in San Antonio were looking for a way to commemorate the anniversary of the legendary Battle of San Jacinto, the climactic confrontation that decided Texas' war for independence from Mexico. If that history is still a bit hazy for you, there is a building in downtown San Antonio that sums up this war in three words: Remember the Alamo.
San Antonians, as history would bear out repeatedly, love a good party (and they don't always even need an excuse for one). So to celebrate this important piece of Texas history, a one-parade event was organized, styled after the Rose Parade that had taken place the previous year in California. The Texas parade, which would become known as the Battle of Flowers Parade, proved to be a hit with both its viewers and organizers.
From this one parade, which now attracts an estimated 350,000 attendees each year, the movement that became Fiesta was born. Each successive year, the Fiesta San Antonio Commission has sifted through hundreds of applications from groups who are looking to be added to the growing calendar of events.
“I think it is safe to say that someone can be at Fiesta from sunup to sundown during certain days of the celebration,” says Fiesta executive director Amy Shaw. “There really isn’t a shortage of events, and someone going to Fiesta can always find something unique to do to occupy their time.”
A Tricentennial Celebration
While each year’s Fiesta is something unique, special and not to be missed, the 2018 edition is extra special for a number of reasons. First and foremost, 2018 marks the 300th anniversary of the founding of San Antonio! Just in time for this year’s Fiesta, the city is smack-dab in the middle of its big, yearlong 300th birthday party.
“Every year, our job [at the Commission] is to put on the best Fiesta possible,” says Shaw. “This year, there are a lot of events that are larger than in previous years, partly because of the tricentennial. I think visitors to the parades, especially, will get a healthy dose of the tricentennial.”
So, with that in mind, you might be asking, how does one “do” Fiesta? First things first: You have to know where to go.
As has been mentioned, there are dozens of events throughout the course of Fiesta, and many have been around for decades and have developed serious devotees.
“Everyone has their favorite event,” says Shaw. “Families have been going to events like NIOSA and the parades for generations. It’s amazing, when you think about it.”
It is at this point that first-time visitors—and, to be fair, even seasoned Fiesta pros—are going to need a calendar.
If you were to ask a San Antonian which event/events really encapsulate what Fiesta is all about, you’d probably get a list comprising the following: the aforementioned Battle of Flowers Parade, NIOSA (aka A Night in Old San Antonio, which will be covered shortly), the Texas Cavaliers River Parade, Fiesta Flambeau Parade and the Fiesta Oyster Bake. And through street chair sales to many of these events, the Fiesta San Antonio Commission is able to support local nonprofit groups like Scout troops, PTAs, civic clubs and more.
Historic Downtown San Antonio—think the Alamo, River Walk, Hemisfair and Tower of the Americas—is the hub of the overall wheel of Fiesta. The parades all originate either on the streets of Downtown or on the San Antonio River. However, with well over 100 events taking place during Fiesta, the spokes of the wheel extend all over the city.
A Night in Old San Antonio
When it comes to iconic events—the kind that a first-time visitor must attend—aside from the Battle of Flowers Parade, the one event that stands out is A Night in Old San Antonio. Set among the shops and streets of historic La Villita, the oldest neighborhood still existing in San Antonio, NIOSA is a concentrated week's worth of all the things that make Fiesta great.
(As a quick aside, there has long been a debate on how to say “NIOSA.” Locals tend to go with ny-oh-suh, but the official pronunciation is nee-oh-suh.)
There is food from literally all over the world, live music of all kinds, adult beverages and an unbelievable energy that fill the area to the brim. It would be an understatement to call NIOSA one of the most popular events during Fiesta (over 86,000 people visit throughout the four nights it is held). This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the event, also making it one of the oldest celebrations.
“When people ask me how to attend NIOSA, I have some simple advice that I always offer,” says Margie Arnold, chairman of NIOSA and vice president of the San Antonio Conservation Society. “First, I tell them to come at 5:30 pm and get there when the gates open, as it tends to get crowded pretty fast.”
Like most Fiesta events, NIOSA and its many food and drink booths operate on a ticket system. Visitors can purchase many food and drink tickets/coupons (FYI, these can be bought throughout La Villita, but those booths are cash-only) and trade them in for all the delicious goodies that the event has to offer.
“For someone going for the first time, there are a couple of things that I think they have to do,” says Arnold. “First, they must get a Maria’s tortilla, because that is one of our longtime popular food traditions. There are a lot of things that people really enjoy doing while they’re at NIOSA, and I think the fun is finding that one thing to do or eat and make it your own.”
Know Before You Go
“The best advice I can give someone who’s never gone to Fiesta is to take a look at the events on the calendar and find something you’re into,” says Shaw. “There are so many great events built around so many different things. I mean, we have the music, the food, the art and the parades, of course. But there are sporting events, there are dances, there is even the Charreada (Mexican rodeo). There is so much to do during Fiesta.”
Hopefully you’re as jazzed reading about Fiesta as nearly everyone in San Antonio is about attending, but before heading off to plan your visit, here are some words of practical advice.
First, in terms of cost, Fiesta can be as expensive or as inexpensive as you make it. Some of the popular events charge an admission fee, while a great number are free.
Second, wardrobe. Wear comfortable clothing as much as possible, and be sure to wear closed-toed, good-fitting shoes. It tends to get warm during April in S.A., and you don’t want to wear out before getting the full enjoyment out of your experience; when it comes to shoes, there is going to be a lot of walking no matter where you go.
Lastly, embrace the crazy! Fiesta really is what its name implies—it is a giant party. You’re going to make lots of new friends. You’re going to have multiple cascarones cracked on your head (it’s just going to happen, and it’s OK). You’re going to get the best that San Antonio has to offer. Viva Fiesta!